Ubisoft's stunning new sequel suggests a certain humility from Ubisoft, a tacit admission that the franchise has been lapped
Assassin’s Creed is an insular franchise. Ubisoft had nothing to draw on when they established the series in 2007. Open-world games were flat and sectarian, full of closed doors and invisible walls. Ubisoft bet big on radical tech that would allow Altair to climb up and over the marble-white pillars of ancient Damascus. Nobody had done anything like that before, and Ubisoft immediately inspired a generation of competitors. Sucker Punch adopted those traversal tropes for its dystopian superhero saga Infamous, Monolith cribbed the combat system and brutally efficient assassinations in Shadow of Mordor, Rocksteady boiled down the structure into Arkham's tight, focused levels. But Ubisoft stayed faithful. They rarely looked outside of themselves to iterate on the Assassin's Creed DNA. In fact, some of their most notable iterations were borrowed from other in-house properties, like the magical enemy-tagging binoculars from Far Cry. But Origins is different. For the first time in 10 years, Ubisoft has decided that one of the most influential game series' in the world needs to change.
Ubisoft famously took a year off from Assassin's Creed between 2015's Syndicate and this new game. It was clear why; Syndicate was a well-received title in the way that Assassin's Creed games are normally lauded. But Unity, the French Revolution-set 2014 Creed game, was a hopeless disaster. It was the breaking moment for a huge swathe of gamers, the moment where everything annoying about this series came to an unbearable head. Heaps of technical issues, aimless, clinical storytelling, the same automated free-running gameplay and Simon Says combat that always provided a whisper of fun without letting you ever feel like you’re in control of anything. Unity was lambasted with hilarious acrimony, and it ushered Ubisoft back to the drawing board.
But Origins, on paper, is not a pure rebirth. You don a silvery hood in a fully-realized historical location (this time ancient Egypt) and cop side quests from the local celebrities. In the first few minutes of my demo, I hung Medjay (the name of this year’s protagonist) off the bow of a warship, and tapped the Y button to stab a guard in the neck and pulled him overboard into the ocean. This is still One of Those Games; the wide berth of Indiana Jones action-adventure that encompasses everything from Horizon: Zero Dawn to Sony's upcoming Spider-Man. Ubisoft isn't interested in rebuilding the wheel like they did with the first Creed, instead, they're adopting several crucial mechanics from other games to give the franchise a good foundation going forward.
Origins most startling (and most necessary) reformation is the combat. In the past Assassin's Creed relied on flashy, but hollow chains of counters and blocks. There was some unintentional humor in watching an Assassin, cornered on the streets of Rome, with six Renaissance guards taking turns to offer big, overlong swing animations. Origins ditches that completely. In the 15 minutes I played, the swordplay felt similar to Dark Souls. Right bumper for a light attack, right trigger for a heavy, left trigger to pull up your shield. Combat is now based on hitboxes and positioning – no more guileless animations, no more warping to an encroaching soldier with the tap of the X button. For the first time in an Assassin’s Creed game, toe-to-toe swordfighting feels like something the developers actually want you to engage in.
That's a feeling you get from a lot of Origins. It seems like Ubisoft entered this game with the intention of putting the player back in control. Climbing has been reworked from the pixel-hunting of previous games – no more looking for jutted bricks and handrails to clamber up a tower. Medjay, like Link in Breath of the Wild, can scale anything, which will hopefully open up the mission design into something a little more creative and modular. There’s a Destiny like loot-system with multiple intricate item slots all over your character sheet. White damage numbers spark off enemies' heads when you connect with steel. The new skill tree is huge, with three separate pathways between combat, stealth, and mysticism. Medjay is equipped with a surprisingly deadly bow and arrow, which means for the first time Assassin’s Creed’s operations can be conducted from afar. Ubisoft is promising that swathes of the overworld will be filled with high-level enemies, which means you won’t be able to slash your way the game like an unimpeachable god. For the first time in a decade, Assassin’s Creed is discovering the power in a few ornery edges – the pleasure of trying, failing, and eventually conquering.
Will that be enough to convince those who’ve been turned off by the franchise? I’m not sure. This is still an Assassin's Creed game, you still hunt down fugitives from the rafters of ancient buildings from the cozy porcelain porch of an Abstergo animus. Origins doesn't completely break the mold, but that's also not it’s intention. Instead, it suggests a certain humility from Ubisoft, a tacit admission that the franchise has been lapped. Origins design doc might not be radical, but the penance certainly is.